First Impressions of Futuropia

·    Designer:  Friedemann Friese

·    Publisher:  2F-Spiele (Stronghold Games will release an English version in January)

·    Players:  1-4

·    Ages:  12+

·    Time:  90 minutes

Friedemann Friese possesses one of the most imaginative and creative minds of any game designer in the world.  And the remarkable thing is that that statement has probably been true for over 20 years. He doesn’t just think outside of the box—sometimes it seems like his thoughts roam outside of the entire known universe.  His games are like no others. Unfortunately, that means (to me, at least) that sometimes his designs are more interesting than fun, the gameplay playing second fiddle to the fascinating concepts at the core of the titles.  This has been particularly noticeable recently, as most of Friese’s most prominent (and audacious) games, like 504 and Fabled Fruit, just haven’t worked for me, even though I admire the ideas behind them. His latest effort, though, is Futuropia, a no-luck economic game of perfect information, which is right in my wheelhouse.  Could this be, after a prolonged dry spell, a Friedemann game that I actually want to play? My hopes were high and I was lucky enough to play a couple of games of it recently. Here are my early impressions of the design.

First, let’s describe the setting.  At some unspecified time in the future, the players are tasked with creating their own personal utopia.  Not an entire social order, just a very small part of one. Specifically, the idea is to build and populate a self-sustaining condominium, complete with generators for food and energy, living quarters, robots, and people.  The goal is to house as many humans as possible who don’t have to work and who can devote all of their time to leisure activities.  As the rules so F-fortlessly put it, this is time to spend “fishing, farming, fencing, and flying”, as well as playing games, of course.  Now that’s my idea of a utopia!

The condos the players will be building have two levels.  The living quarters tiles, with spaces for each players’ people to reside in, go on the top level.  The food and energy generators, with spaces for workers, go in the basement, below the living quarters.  If a people meeple is used to operate a generator, the living quarter space above its work space must be kept empty, since that’s where it lives.  However, if a robot is used to operate the generator, the space above it can be occupied with a non-working person.  So the construction of the condos makes it easy to see how much living space there is for your people and how many of them can live in leisure.

Each player begins with their own living quarters tile (all identical), enough for three people to live and work in.  They also start with some money and a small amount of food and energy stored up. Finally, everyone starts with five action tiles face up in front of them (again, each set of five tiles is identical).  On a player’s turn, they choose one of their face up action tiles, follow its instructions, and then turn it face down. At some point, each player will want to refresh their action tile supply, either because they are all face down or because they want to carry out actions they have already used during the current cycle.  At that point in time, they expose all their tiles and the cycle begins again. The process is similar to Concordia and many other games, although in Futuropia, no further action tiles are ever acquired, so you must make do with your starting five for the entire game.

In the game’s main innovation, most of the action tiles consist of two parts.  First, is an activity, used to expand and populate their condominium. Second, is a so-called test run, which is actually just a way to either produce or consume food and energy.  Production and consumption of resources are independent processes in this game—in theory, you could produce food (or energy) several times in a row without consuming any (and vice versa).  So most of the action tiles have two separate aspects which the players must take into account when planning how to play them.

Here’s a description of each of the five action tiles:

Buy a Food Generator/Produce Food – First, buy one of the available food generators and add it to your condo.  There are about a dozen different kinds of food generators provided, each with its own price, number of worker spaces, and amount of food it will produce if all its spaces are occupied with people or robots.  (Some spaces have a symbol that shows it can only be occupied with a person, but the rest can be manned by either type of meeple.) The two cheapest types of food generators are available for sale at all times.  There are one or two generators provided per type, depending on the number of players.

There is a sliding scale that modifies the purchase cost of the food generators.  If the more expensive generator is bought, the scale advances by one level. For each level, the more expensive generator type of the two available costs one additional dollar and the cheaper generator type costs one less dollar.  If the last cheap generator of its kind is bought, the scale is reset to zero. The object is to keep the generator supply from stagnating.

If you’re short of money, you can always take a loan from the bank.  Each loan gives you $5 and there’s no limit to how many you can hold.  I’ll discuss the ramifications of loans a little bit later.

Your condo can never include more than seven generator tiles (between food and energy).  If an eighth generator is bought, the player must discard the generator of their choice, without compensation.

Once the food generator is purchased, the player produces food.  Meeples can be moved around to man generators in the best way possible.  All fully occupied food generators (not only the one just purchased) then produce food and the amount is added to the player’s supply.

Buy an Energy Generator/Produce Energy – This works exactly the same as the previous action tile, except for energy.  The energy cost sliding scale is independent of the one for food.

Invite People/Consume Food – There’s actually three things that can happen when this tile is chosen.  First, you can add up to 5 new people to your condo. Next, you can buy one or more Living Quarter tiles from the bank.  Each of these tiles has a cost, spaces for your people (different tiles have different numbers of spaces), and most of them also have power requirements and end-game VPs.  You have to have at least as many living quarter spaces as you have people, so you might be forced to buy tiles. Finally, you have to feed your people, one stored food token per person in your condo.  If you’re short of food tokens, you must buy them from the bank for $2 apiece.

Take Robots/Consume Energy – Robots are vital, since they allow your people to live lives of leisure.  With this tile, you can take up to 3 robots and put them to work in your generators.  Then, you have to pay for your energy consumption: 1 stored energy token per robot, plus the energy requirements of your living quarters.  As with food, if you’re short of energy tokens, you have to buy them for 2 bucks apiece.

Take a Subsidy – Such are the wonders of this utopia that the gummint wants to encourage your condo construction efforts, so this tile lets you receive a cash subsidy from the bank.  This starts at $12, and steadily increases over the course of the game. This is the only action tile that doesn’t have a “test run” associated with it. But, geez, money for nuthin’ and ‘bots for free:  Friedemann, I want to live in your world!

Turns continue, with each player carrying out and then flipping one of their action tiles.  At the beginning of your turn, you can expose all of your tiles, either because you have to, since they’re all face down, or if you want to play one that is currently flipped.  In the latter case, you must pay one item (a dollar, unit of food, or unit of energy) for every tile that is still face up at the start of your turn. Whenever tiles are exposed, the interest on your loans is due.  The cost is one item for every loan you have. At this time, you can also pay loans off, by giving 5 items (any mix of money, food, or energy) to the bank for each loan you want to retire.

The end of the game is triggered when a player’s action either results in one of the highest priced Food or Energy generators entering the market, or when a player has 25 or more people in their condo.  At this point, the triggering player keeps the action tile they just carried out face down, but exposes all their other tiles.  All other players expose all of their tiles.  There is no cost for any of this.  The game continues, with each player getting one last chance to play each of their exposed tiles.  Alternatively, when a player’s turn comes around, they can choose to retire from the game, carrying out no further actions, but keeping their still exposed tiles face up (as they’re worth VPs).  When a player retires, they pay interest on their loans and pay off as many of them as they can. Once all players have retired, the game ends.

Before scoring the game, each player must ensure that their condo is self-sustaining.  That is, its generators must provide enough food for all of its people and enough energy for all of its robots and living quarters.  Stored supplies of either resource cannot be used. If a condo isn’t self-sustaining, there is a rigid procedure outlined in which the player eliminates ‘bots, living quarters, and people until the whole shebang can provide for itself.  Then, VPs are calculated, as follows:

·    5 VPs for each non-working person meeple;

·    1 VP for each surplus food or energy produced by the condo’s generators (that is, in excess of what is needed for self-sustainment);

·    The VPs from the living quarter tiles;

·    -3 VPs for each loan;

·    3 VPs for each exposed action tile (that wasn’t carried out during the last cycle);

·    0.1 VPs for each stored dollar, food, or energy unit.

High score wins and that player is rewarded with five extra minutes of leisure time.  Don’t laugh, it could add up!

Since in the basic game, there are no random elements and every player starts the same, replayability is probably limited.  Fortunately, there is an Upgraded game to help with that. There are two changes from the basic game. First, instead of the basic starting living quarter tiles, there are 8 upgraded ones, each of which gives its owning player a special ability.  Two tiles are randomly chosen for each player in the game, forming a pool. At the start of the game, in reverse player order, each player buys one of them and uses it for their starting living quarters. The remaining ones are available to be purchased during the game, so that, on average, each player will have two of these abilities to help form their strategy.  The other change is that the “B” side of the other living quarter tiles is used. This changes a number of things, but the biggest one is that the tiles are more expensive. Thus, the players will probably have to rely more on subsidies and loans than in the basic game.

Finally, for players who have mastered Futuropia, an Expert game is provided.  There are 9 variant tiles and two are chosen at random prior to each game. Each tile outlines restrictions or imposes less favorable rules, so that skilled players have a new challenge with each game.  A solo game is also included, for people who have too much leisure time on their hands.

That’s more detail than I usually go into in my reviews, but the design is so straightforward that I figured I’d go whole hog.  As you can tell from the description, this is purely an efficiency game. You can literally do anything you want, whenever you want to; it really is impossible to paint yourself into a corner.  Short of money? Take a loan. Not enough food or energy to meet your consumption needs? You can buy it from the bank. Want to take an action that you recently took? Just flip the tiles up and do it.  There are costs associated with all of these options, but they aren’t so exorbitant that they can’t be part of your strategy if you deem it necessary. The fact that loans can be paid off with resources, and not just cash, means that living on credit can be worthwhile.  It all comes down, as it always does in games like this, to doing things slightly more efficiently than your opponents.

So I’ve played this twice now, both times with three players, once with the Basic game and once with the Upgraded game.  My feelings at this point? I like it, but don’t love it. I’ve enjoyed the mental gymnastics and planning necessary to succeed.  The mechanics are sound and the little touches like the sliding cost scales for the generators work well and need to be taken into account when planning your turn.  The theme is fresh and the game plays very smoothly, without much downtime. In fact, it might be a little too straightforward for this to really grab me, but it’s still at an early stage and there are still aspects I need to explore before I finalize my rating.

Futuropia features an unusual combination:  an accessible game that is nevertheless quite thinky.  It really is easy to learn; once you grasp the independence of production and consumption, all that needs to be taught are the five action tiles (none of which are complicated) and a few other details.  But that simple framework still leads to interesting decision-making, as you try to expand your condo, maintain self-sufficiency, and maximize your meeple leisure time as efficiently as possible. Turns are rarely dramatic, but there are different strategies that can be employed, so you need to figure out which one best fits your situation and execute it as well as possible.  Both of my games turned out to be something of a race, with the players trying to get their people population up to 25 as quickly as possible. Getting there first doesn’t guarantee victory, but if you fall too far behind with your peeps, you have no chance. So you need to worry about saving actions, as well as being efficient with money, food, and energy.

Having played both the Basic and Upgraded games, I have some advice for first-time players:  start out with the Upgraded rules and don’t bother with the Basic ones. Alternatively, if you’re uncertain about how to approach the game prior to your first contest (which was the case with us), start with the Basic rules, play through one, or maybe two cycles of the action tiles, and then, once you see how things work, stop play and immediately start an Upgraded game.  The Basic game is not without interest, but with no way of differentiating initial player positions, the strategies are a bit static and many turns seem obvious. My fear is that some groups will start with the Basic game, find it a bit lacking, and not give this game a fair chance. The Upgraded game is definitely the way to go and the sooner you get into it, the better.

Another thing that first-time players need to be aware of is the subtleties of the endgame.  The fact that the player who triggers the end of the game doesn’t get to use that turn’s action tile for the rest of the game (while everyone else gets to use all five of their tiles) can be very significant, particularly if the trigger comes from reaching 25 people.  Everyone else will be able to invite people during the last round, while you won’t, so if you’re counting on your edge in people to lead you to victory, you’d better make sure it’s sizable enough to withstand the rest of the table having the chance to bring in up to 5 more dudes before the game ends.  Just to provide one very small sample size, in both of our games, the player who triggered the endgame didn’t win. The other unusual thing about the endgame is the 3 VPs awarded for each unused action. 3 Veeps is a lot, so an action needs to be pretty valuable in order to make up for that. Don’t be surprised if only a small number of actions are carried out during the last cycle.  Consequently, it’s important to position yourself so that you don’t have to rely on too many of those final actions (unless they’re going to be very lucrative).

The game’s components are perfectly adequate.  A crapton of cardboard tiles are provided, along with a good deal of wood (for the people and robot meeples).  The tiles are reasonably thick and the information on them is presented clearly, so that it’s easy to scan a display and pick out costs and production levels.  The artwork on the generators is a bit bland, but it didn’t bother us. There are some nice touches on the living quarters tiles, such as trashy looking furniture to justify a low VP level.  The rules are quite clearly written; they may be a little verbose, but I’d rather have to deal with that issue than something that is overly terse.  All in all, the production values do little to add to or detract from the playing experience. Of course, there is standard paper money provided, and its mere presence will cause some to utter a word beginning with Friedemann’s favorite letter to show their displeasure.  But I assume those folks will do what we did and use poker chips, so I don’t see that being too much of an issue.

Even though I’ve enjoyed both of my games, there are a couple of things that have somewhat limited my enthusiasm for it.  The first is that there’s not that much to think about.  Clear thinking and good planning are essential, but the very factors that make this an accessible title also mean that the problems you need to solve don’t feel that deep.  I do have the feeling that it might be more difficult to consistently do well than it first appears. For one thing, navigating player-induced chaos (which manifests itself mostly in the choice of generators that are available to you each turn) is actually a fairly significant issue (the difference between one generator and the next most expensive one can really change your strategy).  For another, I’m not convinced that we’ve taken as much advantage of the relatively inexpensive cost of loans and skipped actions in my games as we might have. So there’s definitely still strategies to explore. But right now, while the games have been fun, they haven’t consistently featured the enjoyably stressful mental workout I was hoping for.

The other reason is a slight concern about replayability.  Even with the variance introduced with the Upgraded game, which gives you about 30 or so different combinations of abilities to dictate your strategy, there’s the nagging fear that games might start to feel samey after a while.  I mean, there’s only so many ways you can attack the problem of building up your condo. There’s also the issue that while the 8 Living Quarter abilities are interesting, none of them are as game changing as the ones in, say, The Voyages of Marco Polo, so it’s not like you will be dealing with dramatic differences in each game.  That’s not necessarily a negative, but it does affect the way the game plays out.  I have no idea if the title’s useful life will be 10 games, or 20, or 50, or forever.  But the fact that I’m even considering this question after only two games is at least a tiny red flag.

Still, it would be a mistake to make too much of these concerns.  Futuropia is a solid, no luck design that requires a good deal of pleasurable thought and planning to play well.  Despite that, the system is quite straightforward and accessible. The theme is unusual and appealing. The Upgraded game gives you a good deal of variety and there’s an Expert version provided, if an additional challenge is desired.  The game may not include the startlingly innovative concepts of recent Friese titles like 504, but to me, at least, it provides a more satisfying play experience. You may personally never get to the point in life where you can do nothing but play games all day, but at least you can have the satisfaction of giving other (albeit wooden) people the chance to do so in Futuropia.

Comments by Other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber (4 plays, including two of a review copy of the published game): Reading Larry’s comments, I see hints of the same concerns I have with Futuropia – just how it will play out over time.  And, at the same time, I see Larry enjoying some of the same things I do about the game – it’s a typically tight design from Friedemann, and at the same time one that feels unique – it’ doesn’t really remind me of any other game I’ve played before.  Right now I would rate the game as “I like it” on the OpG scale – but the truth is that it’s really somewhere before “neutral” and “I love it!”, and I’m just not sure yet where. I do think – as Larry’s comments suggest – that the low end of the range is around 10 plays, and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself, regardless of my final opinion.

Dale Yu (2 plays) – I have played twice now, once with basic rules and once with advanced.  I don’t necessarily see an issue with the replayability as noted above; there are enough starting positions to make each game different enough… and really, there aren’t many games that ever hit double digits of plays anymore – so as long as there is some variance, that’s probably enough for me.  I don’t need to have over 10,000 possible combinations when I only play a game 6 times! I like the theme here (though who builds a condo and then puts 25 people in it — man, the future must be crowded!), and I generally love efficiency games. This is a very thinky game though the individual actions are easy to grasp, and I like that part about it very much.   So far, I like it, and I still look forward to playing it more.

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4 Responses to First Impressions of Futuropia

  1. Jimmy Okolica says:

    Larry, great review! I solo’d it for the first time last night and you echoed exactly what I thought. Amazing to wake up thinking about the game and trying to put my thoughts into words and then reading exactly what I was thinking!

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    Great review! Yes, Friedemann is great at designing “out of the box,” so to speak. I really admire him for that.

    But farming as a leisure activity? I don’t think he’s played enough games of Agricola :-)

  3. Fraser says:

    Only one play so far for me with three players basic game. I don’t see any real issues with replayability as I was interested to see how differently each of the three players were building up their living quarters, e.g. I had a much higher energy output than one of the other players and thus could afford more robots, but he ended up with a better score than i did. There can be competition, of sorts, about when to purchases the generators or living quarters that you want.

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